One of the world’s more mysterious places, the Ten Thousand Islands is where the Florida peninsula breaks apart into thousands and thousands of tiny pieces. Clusters of mangroves form islands in a shallow estuary constantly fed by a flow of fresh rainfall.
The Marsh Trail is an out-and-back hike into the mangrove mazes. A bonus for birders: an observation tower provides a perch for photography and viewing.
Location: Everglades City
Length: 2.4 mile round-trip
Trailhead: 25.974144, -81.554085
Land manager: US Fish & Wildlife Service
Open dawn to dusk. Mosquitoes can be extremely annoying here. Use insect repellent or a bug net and avoid dusk and dawn walks.
Bicycles are permitted on the trail. This trailhead is also the launch point for several kayak trails through the refuge, each route specifically marked. Kayakers, be sure to have a map before you head out into the wilds.
The entire trail is in the open, with zero shade (unless you duck under the tower). Be cautious of sunning alligators along the trail, which is just above the level of the swamp.
Pets are not permitted. Drones may only be used with a Special Use Permit and FAA permission.
From Interstate 75 in Naples, take the last exit eastbound (Collier Blvd) before the toll road (Alligator Alley). Head south on Collier Blvd to its junction with US 41. Turn left.
Set your trip odometer – the paved parking area along the Tamiami Trail is easy to miss if you don’t realize it’s coming up quick. It’s 11 miles east along US 41, passing the turnoffs for Goodland and Collier-Seminole State Park, before you reach the parking area around MM 31.
For generations, the Ten Thousand Islands have only been accessible by water: by airboat in the shallows, by canoe and kayak and jon boat, and by larger craft through established channels and as the bay deepens.
To open this fascinating area up to exploration by land, the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge used a resource that added no additional impact to this sensitive landscape.
The Marsh Trail follows an old oil well road built for oil exploration. The Collier family still owns mineral rights under most of the public lands that sweep across the end of Florida.
More than a hundred oil well permit applications have been issued since the 1960s. They pump heavy crude oil from two miles below ground in an area called the Sunniland Oil Trend, between Fort Myers and Miami.
Abandoned oil exploration pads dot the landscape of the Big Cypress Swamp. As with the Fire Prairie Trail in Big Cypress Preserve, this road and pad are now put to recreational use.
Begin at the trailhead kiosk. Head past the hand-launch kayak ramp and along the boardwalk, which immediately turns right onto a paved path. The scenery quickly opens up.
Marsh surrounds you, punctuated by tree islands with cabbage palms where wood storks perch. Saltbush fluffs into white blooms in fall, attracting monarch and queen butterflies.
Be cautious where the water laps close to the trail, where snakes or alligators may be sunning. Periphyton, that goopy mass of algae, plankton, bacteria, and other biomass that makes up most of the Everglades, floats on the water’s surface on the west side of trail.
The skunky aroma of Spanish stopper wafts through a small slice of tropical forest that the trail traverses, with gumbo-limbo trees. You may see liguus tree snails crawling up its bark.
Turning the corner, you reach the observation tower. Climb up for a sweeping view of mangroves and a stiff breeze off Florida Bay.
The trail continues past the tower. Passing Kayak Trails #2 and #3, the trail passes an eye-shaped pond. The right side is resplendent in marsh grasses, while the left side is mangrove islands.
Wax myrtle and saltbush give way to mangroves lining the sides of the trail. As you get a clear view of the mangrove marsh, take a moment to watch the shallows for the movement of fish. The estuary is the nursery of Florida Bay.
As the trail curves past a lone gumbo-limbo, to the right you can alligator trails leading in dozens of directions through the marsh.
Another view opens up at 0.6 miles, with reedy marsh to the right and mangroves to the left. This balance of differing wetlands continues for much of the hike.
Cross a culvert where water flows swiftly from one side to the other, a place where alligators tend to hang out for easy prey. The water opens up on the right, transitioning towards the mangrove maze.
Where the trail curves at a watery bend, clumps of primordial-looking giant leather fern grow along the edges. Ahead is a large clearing at the oil exploration pad, which is being reclaimed by vegetation.
There’s an instrumentation station here. It’s not a “wow” ending to the trail, but at least you know where you are.
Since this is an out-and-back hike, turn around and head back the way you came, keeping alert for wildlife in the mangroves – and in the water, and on the berms, and crossing the trail – along the way.
See our slides of the Ten Thousand Islands Marsh Trail
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
It’s the Amazon of North America, home of the ghost orchid. Protecting more than 85,000 acres, Fakahatchee Strand is Florida’s largest state preserve and most certainly our wildest.
East of Naples, the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk at Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park offers a peek into a notable natural landmark, a stand of virgin cypress.
At Collier-Seminole State Park, the short and intriguing Royal Palm Hammock Trail is a wild but gentle introduction to the habitats protected by this park. Although the boardwalks are slippery, you can explore the coastal prairie and mangrove marsh without getting your feet wet.